[LMB] LOTR, Modern Fantasy, and Chalion

James and Mary Burbidge jamesandmary.burbidge at sympatico.ca
Fri, 28 Dec 2001 19:55:47 -0500

I saw the FOTR movie a couple of days ago.

I wasn't particularly impressed.

The analogy which I had drawn to Pope's Homer proved unexpectedly close:
a movie with a number of virtues, but not the Lord of the Rings and
definitely not Tolkienian.  But this spurred a number of thoughts about
the differences between modern fantasy and LOTR and the expectations
which many (especially younger) readers seem to bring, which are more
generally relevant and which also relates to _The Curse of Chalion_.  So
herewith: an essay that starts out with LOTR and Its geminated fantasy
movie, Harry Potter, but ends up fully on topic.

Some of the things the movie cut were clearly in the interest of time
(however well or ill-judged that was). But many other adjustments were
clearly not driven by the time factor, and many of the changes which
involve additions seemed to me to be ill-conceived -- that is, they
achieved some telescoping but in ways which were unnecessary and untrue
to the thematic nature of the book.

1) History

Middle-Earth is historically _deep_.  The Fellowship starts out in the
Shire (which has very little history) but as soon as one leaves the
Shire, various reminders of a much deeper past come out, usually in a
casual manner: Tom's references to the Dunedain of the North with regard
to the swords from the barrow, Aragorn's linking of Weathertop with the
Last Alliance, the narratorial introduction of Bree.  And _the landscape
bears the marks of civilization_.  The road from Bree to Rivendell goes
back to Elendil and probably to at least the founding of Rivendell in
the Second Age; the way through Hollin follows an old highway whose
marks are still visible. Dimrill Dale has its pillar and its greensward.

There are references which have no clear referents.  To those of us who
read LOTR before _The Silmarillion_ came out, many of the references in
the text were almost completely mysterious, having to stand on their own
(especially those to the Valar and the First Age), illuminated only by
their own light.  All we knew of Gil-galad was a few lines dropped here
and there -- by Gandalf, Aragorn and Sam.  Gildor's description of his
band as "Exiles" had little if any resonance because the nature and time
of the exile wasn't laid out for us.

Not in the movie.  There is no reference at all to the East Road and to
Weathertop's location on it, no Last Bridge, no road through Hollin.
Gil-galad, Elbereth, Earendil and Luthien are never mentioned.  Where
Tolkien's world is built on top of multiple layers of history, the
movie's world consists of isolated and unrelated spots -- Bree,
Rivendell, Moria, Lorien -- with no connections between them.  (Arwen is
Galadriel's granddaughter; Arwen may have greater prominence, but the
reference by Aragorn which (along with a number of other references)
helps tie Rivendell and Lothlorien together just drops out of the
picture.)  There is no reference at all to the Kingdom of Arnor, since
it looks like they've decided to grossly simplify the history of the
heirs of Elendil by referring only to Gondor.

2) Meals

This may sound minor by comparison, but much of the action of the book
centres around food as a social occasion of one form or another: the
Party, the meal with Gildor in the Shire, the feast at Rivendell, the al
fresco meal on departing Lothlorien.  Of these, only the Party remains
(and even there, the characteristic hobbit-pleasing line "That is the
signal for dinner." following the dragon vanishes as the result of
changes to the plot there.

This is not as minor as it sounds: in Tolkien's world (as in many
others) civilization is closely tied to eating and drinking on company
as focal occasions.  The _nature_ of the societies is shown up in their
differing attitudes towards meals (contrast the pure Anglo-Saxon
hospitality of Theoden with the disciplined tone of Denethor's
situation, for example.)

3) Age and character development

There were distortions in the ages of the characters which were tightly
related to changes in character development.  To take them one by one:

Merry is 39, and should look _older than Frodo_, as a result of Frodo's
possessing the Ring. (Pippin, by contrast, was about 12 years old at the
time of the Party, and should look _just_ younger than Frodo -- Merry
was about 20 at the same time.)  He's a responsible character who deals
with the "conspiracy", handles the gate at Bree, and spends his time in
Rivendell researching maps.  Instead, he and Pippin are showed as
Tweedledum and Tweedledumber.  Similarly, Sam is a practical and
responsible, almost certainly overconscientious hobbit. I grant that the
requirements to shorten the film required some simplification of the
plot, but the changes which were made, including _insertions_ like the
totally unnecessary fire scene at Weathertop, which make the hobbits
(except Frodo) all look like a somewhat sillier version of Pippin are
gratuitous and unnecessary.  (Thirty seconds exposition regarding
Weathertop's location near the Road would have provided enough of a
background for the subsequent attack, and remained true to the
characterization in the book.)

The hobbits in general suffered from a decision to make Frodo more
prominent and the others less so (e.g. Frodo replacing Merry as the one
who has the right idea about the doors of Moria).  Oh, and eliminating
the master and servant relationship between Frodo and Sam causes a whole
chunk of motivation just to fall out, even for the actions which remain.

Aragorn turns 88 during the War of the Ring.  _He's not in the process
of growing up._  (For that matter, Arwen is 2,778, but that's less
relevant here.)  He knows what he is destined to do (or at least
attempt), and this goes back to his mother's naming of him as "Estel". 
He's a representative -- the
pre-eminent representative -- of classical heroism at its highest form
-- warrior, healer, loremaster -- which gets contrasted both with the
more modern, "Christian" heroism of Frodo and Sam as humility, and with
less high, rougher heroism of the men of the Mark (and Boromir, who is
more like them than the older Men of the West).

4) Elves and Elegiac

The Tolkienian elves are gradually becoming less important in the
world.  The elder days are passing.  They have a long history of exile
and struggle behind them; they are returning to Aman gradually; they are
always looking westward.  Such power as they still have is principally
in preservation, and in their affinities for the natural world (strictly
speaking, they are natural, bound to the world, and humans are
supernatural, seeking beyond the world), and for language in poetry and
song (they are "quendi", the speakers).

The elves who have been in Aman -- and we meet only a few of these,
since most are gone: Glorfindel, Gildor, possibly some other Rivendell
elves, Galadriel, possibly (in some versions of the backstory) Celeborn
-- have additional abilities which do come into play from time to time. 
(The only elves to show a real "aura" of power in the book are
Glorfindel, at the Ford, and Galadriel, at the Mirror.)  But most
"elven-magic" is very close to "blessing" objects: imbuing them with
enhanced virtues according to their nature (Lembas, the elven-cloaks,
_miruvor_) or capturing light and its associated virtues (the Silmarils,
the Elessar, the Phial of Galadriel). In some cases the power associated
with the object is different in type, as with the Rings of Power and the

But as Children of Eru they are, overall, very much like men otherwise:
biologically "the same species" (or else they could not interbreed in a
fertile manner), with the differences being in the soul infused into the
body (hroar and frear, in the Elvish terminology).

There is always, by the time of the War of the Ring, an elegiac mode
associated with the elves in Tolkien's presentation: they know that they
will have to depart, and that the power of the Three will fade, or be
overwhelmed, regardless of the outcome of the war.

None of this is there, per se, in the movie.  (Elrond makes a reference
to the elves as departing, but free of all context).  There is no song
shown in either Rivendell or Lothlorien, and little exceptional fairness
about their voices or features.  Lothlorien suffers the most, but the
essential character of both places as the book presents them --
Rivendell preserving the memory of the Elder Days, and Lothlorien its
essence -- is just not there.  The substitution of Arwen for Glorfindel,
and the reduction of the role before the Ford of "I'm the faster rider"
blurs to the point of obliterating the distinction between Calaquendi
and Moriquendi, and Arwen's invocation of the flood rather than Elrond's
(which would have made use of the power of Vilya) equally obscures the
nature of "elven-magic". The whole elegiac theme regarding the whole
passing of the world, in the way in which the world is changing from one
kind of place to a very different kind of place with the coming of the
Fourth Age, has not been prepared (Part of this lies with point 1,
above, and the absence of the history of which this state of affairs is
a remnant.)

5) Pacing

The book starts out slow-paced, but even when the pace speeds up (after
the departure from Rivendell) the effect of the narrative is one of
relatively long periods of experiencing the surroundings between crises:
the Shire, Arnor, Eregion, Moria (most of which is simply empty, an echo
of its former greatness, rather than threatening -- others have declined
as well as the elves), Lorien, Anduin.  There are usually threats, but
they're over the horizon and not immediate for most of the book.

The movie moves from crisis to crisis -- and this is not merely a matter
of having to edit for length: it _creates_ crises, or heightens the
threats in other situations.  The Prancing Pony is a homey pub with
warmth and light rather than the dive it is presented as; the
confrontation with the Watcher in the water is grossly expanded; the
transferral of the gap-leaping episode from the earlier part of the trip
through the mines (where it merely heightens the sense of decay and
abandonment) to the invented issue on the staircase, gives it a totally
different sense of urgency; the heightening of the conflict in the
chamber of Mazarbul and the later confrontation in the hall play up the
aspects of continuing physical threat.  The initial meeting with the
Elves of Lorien changes from one of startlement only -- Legolas'
surprise when he leaps into the tree -- to direct threat, especially as
it has not been prepared for by Aragorn's previous talk about the Golden

Not all good cinema is related to action and high pacing: it's perfectly
possible to enchant audiences with the opposite as many of the recent
crop of films of earlier English novels do.  The movie provides no major
breaks; such breaks as it does provide (at Rivendell and Lorien) are
made more menacing and the sense of their length is much telescoped.

It is interesting to note that the Harry Potter movie makes far fewer
compromises with the tone and themes of its original.  This is in part
due to Rowling's active involvement in the film, but is even more, I
believe, because the story and themes already reflect the interests of
its audience.

As I have noted before, these differences -- which are more thematic
than purely technical -- seem to me to reflect the sorts of differences
between the Lord of the Rings and the modern fantasy novel in general. 
LOTR has novelistic elements, but it is also grounded in a whole set of
different narrative conventions of epic, edda, and mediaeval romance, in
which characters develop only in the technical sense of "being revealed"
and in which heroic nature is accepted as a postulate.  In addition,
landscape plays a significant role, thematically, in the structure and
thematic unity of the book.  Its theme is elegiac, tinged with regret
for a world which is passing away. These are _not_ aspects of the novel
which have been taken up by its more recent successors.

1) Pure Novelization

Most more recent fantasies are very much novels rather than romances (in
the old sense of romance) or epics.  A surprisingly large number of them
are bildungsroman specimens: _Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn_, _The
Belgariad_, _The Wheel of Time_, Harry Potter: they start with a young,
unformed character and follow him through his development in the fantasy
world.  And whereas a mediaeval author who wanted to tell an Arthurian
story would (usually) tell one with Arthur and his court as a fixed
background and (frequently) a known figure with fixed character as the
central agent, many if not most modern Arthurian stories are about
character development (usually Arthur or Merlin).

Those which aren't are still, usually, very much novels.  _Chalion_ is a
good example here: the central character, Cazaril, is already mature,
but the narrative gains a great deal of its interest from the developing
character-related conflicts and affinities between the characters.

There is character development in the Lord of the Rings -- Frodo, Eowyn,
Merry and Pippin come to mind -- but it's not central to the story in
the way that it is in a "pure" novel.  The film's changes --
highlighting Frodo at various points with relation to the other hobbits,
and making all _sorts_ of changes to Aragorn -- moves the conventions of
the film more closely towards those of the novel and further away from
the romance/epic.  And the entrelacement used as a technique in the book
works against too much focus on any one character or plot line as being
"the" plot of the book.

The use of verse in the book pushes it away from the novel as well,
although it doesn't have the strict structural role that is true of many
classical and mediaeval works (e.g. Boethius).  Few later fantasy novels
have followed this, just as the use of many linguistic styles which is
important in Tolkien has been dropped by most recent authors, since one
needs a great deal of skill to do this properly, and even the older
standard use of high, middle and low styles (which Tolkien follows and
uses) has fallen out of favour.  (Many of the film's composed scenes
violate these principles, with the most egregious violation being on the
staircase in Moria, but equally in just about all the made-up dialogue
for Elrond and the entire Council.

2) Action

Tolkien holds together two different styles of narrative.  At times --
in dealing with the battle scenes in the second and third volumes,
especially -- he provides a great deal of combat and "action scenes". 
It is this aspect of the books which has frequently led to them being
grouped with "Sword and Sorcery" novels (by those who make no
distinction between this and "high fantasy".  He also uses heavily
descriptive prose which is not dominated by action at all, but rather by
observation and conveys no very great sense of urgency at all (although
things may happen, they aren't matters involving physical conflict).

Modern fantasy tends to have diverged into two streams.  On one hand,
much of the modern EFP is very much action-oriented: it is very much
organized along the lines of a narrative linking combat crises
together.  On the other, writers like Guy Kay and Rowling may have some
very isolated incidents of martial or magical conflict but these are
isolated within their narratives, where the focus is almost entirely
elsewhere.  _Chalion_ fits into this latter category -- Cazaril may have
a military past and the resolution of the book involves a direct
military conflict, but the bulk of the book focuses on other matters

3) Other races.

Lots of post-Tolkien novels have Elves, Dwarves and/or trolls/goblins of
one sort or another: consider _The Deed of Paksennarion_, _Memory,
Sorrow, and Thorn_, _Oath of Swords_, and the Riftwar books, for
example.  In many cases the elves and dwarves are directly or indirectly
derivative of Tolkien; in virtually all of them, though, the _history_
of the other races is quite different (if any is given at all), and in
most if not all of them the elves are _more_ alien as regards men than
Tolkien's elves are (and frequently the Dwarves are more like men, but
that is a more minor point).  In many (although not all) of them the
story ends with the same status quo as regards relations between the
races as held at the outset.

But the stream of novels, once again, has bifurcated.  Most novels which
do have multiple types of rational beings presuppose at least some
points of relatively full interaction between them and tend to locate
the story in a thorough mix of races.  (The extreme would be the Vlad
Taltos books, which have a human focal point in the middle of a society
of "elves".) And most novels which are about human interaction are about
humans only, usually set in worlds where humanity is the only type of
rational being (other, perhaps, than the Gods).  Again, _Chalion_ fits
firmly into the latter category: magic is real, the gods are real (if
not always obvious) but, like Guy Kay's worlds other than Fionavar it is
a world of humans. It was Tolkien's focus of the elegiac aspect -- "an
end was come of the Elder Days in story and song" -- which allows him to
have the elves as important but nevertheless marginal _at once_.  (Note
that this is specifically true of LOTR.  In the Silmarillion the focus
is entirely on elves, with a  few men at the edges and at pivotal points
-- Beren, Turin, Tuor -- and in the _Akallabeth_ it is almost entirely
on men until after the Fall of Numenor).

On the Evolution of SF and Fantasy

In the beginning of "modern fantasy", aside from the Sword and Sorcery
writers and the writers of _Unknown_, there were various other clear
influences on the field, of which Tolkien is the most obvious, who
embodied rather different skills and virtues: Tolkien, with his
knowledge of language and the northern theory of courage; Cabell, with
his ironic attitude, his complex references to classical culture and his
generational themes which also tended towards writing about writing;
Eddison, with his heavily archaic style and mystical interests.

Science fiction, whatever may be said about remote forerunners such as
Swift, Voltaire and even Verne, or outliers such as Lewis, Huxley and
Orwell, really begins as fiction by engineers and scientists for
engineers and scientists: Smith, Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, et al.  It
basically stays at that level (high idea content, typically weak
characterisations, usually optimistic in general outlook) until the New
Wave in the 1960's and then the gradual development of a set of writers
whose concerns with purely _writerly_ craft has raised the overall
average standard of the SF novel very considerably: think of Willis,
Stephenson, Bujold.

It's probably fair to say that there was no single fantasy genre until
about the 1970's.  (When LOTR was published, there were no obvious slots
into which to put it.  Many of the slots into which reviewers put it for
comparison purposes -- Wagner, Ariosto, etc. -- were types of literature
which Tolkien actively disliked.)  And it has become a "genre" by
shedding all sorts of outlying territories which are now seldom visited
until it met science fiction.  From some point in the late 70's or early
80's the two have grown together: SF by attaching (as it were) new
writing territories to address, and Fantasy reflecting these accessions.

But fantasy has now become weighted down by several factors:

1) Much more almost purely formulaic work which floods the market.  Much
of this may be put down to role-playing games, which haven't had nearly
the same scale of effect on science fiction.

2) A few very out-of-the-usual blockbuster sellers in Eddings and
Jordan, who are definitely _not_ the best writers in the field but who
have managed to become heavily popular and have distorted the economic
model of publishing fantasy.  (By contrast, even SF's bestsellers by and
large are an order of magnitude smaller in their difference from the
rest of the field.)  To this one might add Rowling, except that Rowling
is much more accomplished than E. or J. Her financial success, however,
is _so_ great that I expect her to become a distorting influence all by
herself, but more like Tolkien: somewhere ahead of us a flood of
Harry-Potter-Sword-of-Shannara equivalents is waiting for us.

3) Where science fiction tends to get new ideas flowing in from the pace
of technological change, fantasy has to be driven by its own internal
mechanisms.  Thus the most promising fantasy novels tend to show
cross-pollination with genres outside fantasy: many with techniques and
concerns drawn from the mainstream novel (note that a number of 
"mainstream" novels also draw on fantasy elements: true dreams, ghosts,
etc.).  Since this _also_ goes on in science fiction, science fiction is
tending to pull ahead of fantasy.

And the things which are the most "characteristic" of Tolkien have
dropped out of modern fantasy almost entirely.  I see this not only in
the film (which manages to preserve the outline and order of events
while driving them with most un-Tolkienian themes, timing, and
motivations) but in the reactions of many (e.g. in the
rec.arts.books.tolkien newsgroup) to the films, which is overall
remarkably positive given the great liberties taken with the books
_which are not simply a matter of screen adaptation_.

In Dorothy Heydt's _A Point of Honor_ there is a fantasy novel (_The
Golden Road_) inside the story which provides some important content (as
well as one direct quote of about a page).  It sounds fascinating and
very Tolkienian (down to its inspiration in a story which is buried in
the few remnants of germanic poetry of the late classical period, that
of the captivity of Theodoric).  But I suspect, more and more, that
_Golden Roads_ are less and less likely to turn up.  The trend of the
genre is away from the epic and towards the novel, or towards the gross
simplification of the epic which is sword and sorcery.  The new good
fantasies are, more and more, the books which dispense with the
inherited trappings which drove Tolkien and which make use of narrative
techniques of the novel and conceptual ideas whose virtue lies in being
"new" (at least to the genre) rather than "old" -- like _Chalion_, like
Brust's and Kay's and Rowling's work.

James Burbidge			jamesandmary.burbidge at sympatico.ca